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‘The Rocketeer’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 21, 1991

Disney's new picture, "The Rocketeer," is a celebration of bland, all-American averageness that itself manages to be nothing better than average. Set in Los Angeles in 1938, the film presents a simpler, drowsier vision of America, a "Love Bug" America, a "Son of Flubber" America. Based on the comic book by Dave Stevens (they call it a "graphic novel" in the credits), it has a kind of willful innocence; it's as middle-of-the-road as Fred MacMurray's pipe.

The film's plot is pure hokum; it's about a plucky young pilot who thwarts a Nazi plot, engineered by a famous Hollywood star with the support of the local mob, to steal a strap-on rocket pack and launch an unstoppable wave of jet-powered Huns bent on destroying our way of life.

That's the general outline, but some weird stuff has been added to the recipe. The rocket pack, as it turns out, was dreamed up by Howard Hughes (played with a dash of slippery mischief by Terry O'Quinn), who seems to have the entire FBI at his beck and call. And the movie star is a swashbuckling romantic hero (Timothy Dalton) based rather casually on the rumors of Errol Flynn's activities as a Nazi spy. Combine this with a patriotic gangster (Paul Sorvino) who's fussy about where his paycheck comes from and a giant hit man wearing one of those big rubber masks left over from "Dick Tracy," and the result is a very mixed up, hackneyed and sometimes distasteful cartoon.

As a director, Joe Johnston (whose first film was "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids") is better at the technical elements than at the human ones. The picture has a sweetly daffy period design that was devised with a far greater portion of wit than the script deserved. And the special effects have a handmade quality that's refreshingly modest and, on occasion, genuinely thrilling.

The performances Johnston gets out of his actors, though, makes them seem dangerously close to being handmade too. Bill Campbell, who plays Cliff, a young pilot who finds the rocket pack hidden in his plane and, with the help of his mechanic friend, Peevy (Alan Arkin), becomes the Rocketeer, is strong on pluck, and he's got a good handle on the Jimmy Stewart brand of hair-in-the-face integrity. Still, there's something impenetrable about this actor's American-pie handsomeness; he smiles beguilingly, but he has the emotional range of a Ken doll. And he has his Barbie doll playmate in Jennifer Connelly, who plays his equally plucky girlfriend, Jenny. Her part here is that of an aspiring actress, and she's perfect for the role -- an aspiring actress playing an aspiring actress. Squeezed into her '30s costumes, she acts mostly with her lipstick and is something of a special effect herself.

Partly by design, partly by accident, "The Rocketeer" seems better suited to an audience of kiddies than adults. It stays on its feet and doesn't ask too much of us, and that may be enticement enough for younger folks. It's a humble little item, actually, easily digested and easily forgotten.

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